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Sarah Anderson has found her dream job: Clerk of Court for the District of Columbia Night Court. Dream job, that is, until she’s attacked in the open courtroom by a vampire defendant. And until she’s forced to take self-defense lessons from her boss, the enigmatic vampire James Morton. And until she learns she can’t share the truth about any of that with her best friend, Allison Ward – even over delectable cupcakes from the Cake Walk bakery.
Soon, Sarah is surrounded by vampires, griffins, and sprites – all members of a secret supernatural court. And when a deceptively easy-going reporter starts to ask questions, Sarah wonders just what answers she is supposed to give….
<<< Chapter 1 >>>
As I watched Judge Robert DuBois drink a steaming glass of blood, I realized that my new job wasn’t going to be the usual nine to five.
This couldn’t be happening to me. I couldn’t be sitting in the courtroom for the District of Columbia Night Court, watching an actual vampire devour a midnight snack. I couldn’t be staring at suddenly-apparent fangs, at jet-black eyes in a whey-pale face, at a cruel and commanding supernatural jurist, where a mousy human judge had sat mere moments before.
It looked like my dream job, Court Clerk for the District of Columbia Night Court, was going to leave a little something to be desired.
“James,” Judge DuBois snapped. “Do we have a problem with Ms. Anderson?”
My boss stood at attention beside me. In his impeccable dark suit, Mr. Morton looked every bit the Director of Security for the Night Court. “No, Your Honor. No problem at all.”
But we did have a problem. A huge one — gaping in the center of the courtroom floor. The red-headed Amazon of a bailiff, Eleanor Owens, had pressed some hidden lever on the courtroom wall, and the sleek marble tiles started to slide back, folding away silently, one beneath another. An iron railing rose up from the emptiness below. Stairs gleamed as they marched into the darkness, and a metallic clang announced some door opening far below.
Eleanor’s impressive display of violet eyeshadow glittered as she stepped away from the lever and intoned, “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Night Court of the Eastern Empire, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. May Sekhmet watch over all proceedings here and render justice unto all.”
I barely had time to register the odd words before a woman walked up the shadowy stairs. Exquisitely dressed in a plum-colored suit, she was the living — or, I rapidly came to suspect — the undead image of a professional lady lawyer. She strode to the defense table and snapped open her briefcase.
A doddering old man followed behind her. Okay, he wasn’t actually doddering, and he was probably only fifty-five, but he looked fat and soft and stupid next to the woman. He lugged a heavy litigation bag, one of those oversized briefcases that attorneys use to cart around endless sheaves of paper. He grunted as he hefted the satchel onto the prosecution’s table.
Once both lawyers had settled into their places, Eleanor descended the stairs. My mind was reeling; I was twisting the coral ring on the middle finger of my right hand as if it could turn back time, could make everything normal again. I had only completed one year of law school, but my classes had certainly never prepared me for anything like this. Even my interview with Mr. Morton had seemed perfectly normal — he had glanced at my resumé, asked me a bunch of questions about the three dozen jobs I’d held over the past few years, nodded when I explained that I was good at organizing information. He’d accepted my writing sample, told me that he was looking at a couple of other candidates, and said that he’d be back in touch.
And three days later, I was hired.
Now, sitting in the courtroom, Mr. Morton leaned forward, as two heads came into view on the secret staircase, Eleanor’s and the defendant’s. Clever me — I realized that the slight guy with the white-blond hair and ice-blue eyes had to be the defendant, because a gleaming silver chain was strung between his feet. That, and the fact that he wore a baggy white prison uniform, along with dirty flip-flops.
Eleanor followed behind the guy, towering over him without regard to the sneer he directed at her. She hefted a length of silver chain in her left hand; the links stood out against her heavy amethyst bracelet. In her right hand, she held a wooden stick, the length of her forearm and the width of her wrist. It tapered down to a knife-sharp point.
The Night Court bailiff held a stake.
This had to be a joke — some sort of hazing for the new girl. Mr. Morton had read my resumé. He knew that I’d written my undergraduate thesis on Gothic literature in America — old horror stories, like Edgar Allan Poe. The courtroom staff must have decided to pull my leg.
Strike that. Judge DuBois didn’t look like the type of guy who would put up with courtroom pranks.
This was insane. They couldn’t be vampires. Vampires had no lungs. No beating hearts. I focused on Mr. Morton’s starched white shirt. As soon as I saw him take a breath, I could laugh at myself. I could say that I had been taken in by a strange series of coincidences, that I’d been a gullible fool.
But he didn’t breathe.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eleanor clump back to her place at the front of the bench. She proclaimed: “The matter of the Clans of the Eastern Empire versus Karl Schmidt, Judge Robert DuBois presiding.”
Mr. Morton still didn’t breathe.
The blond woman stood and announced, “Your Honor, we’d like to call our next witness, Ernst Brauer.”
No breathing yet.
Eleanor heaved herself toward the impossible stairs in the center of the courtroom, stood at attention as another man climbed those steps. Judge DuBois ordered Brauer to take the witness stand.
No breathing at all.
My head swam. My vision clouded, and I realized that I had to get out of that room. “I can’t— ” I started to say, and I staggered toward the courtroom doors, doors that I had watched Mr. Morton lock behind us, a mere half hour before.
“James!” Judge DuBois snapped, and my boss’s hand suddenly reached for my elbow.
“No!” I said, jerking my arm out of his reach.
“Sarah!” Mr. Morton shouted, and he blocked my way to the courtroom doors.
Before I could push past him, a snarl ripped the air — pure animal fury that shattered whatever formality remained in the courtroom. Judge DuBois slammed his gavel down, demanding order in his court. There was a clatter as the court reporter leaped to one side. Eleanor clutched her silver chain, and Mr. Morton grabbed at me again, closing his icy palm around my arm.
But none of it mattered. None of it made any difference.
Ernst Brauer crashed through the wooden gate that separated the active area of the courtroom from the spectators’ seats. He pounced on me, grabbing my hair and snapping my head back like a doll’s. I pounded at his chest, but I might as well have battled stone. His grip was stronger than I’d ever imagined an attacker’s could be. I tried to turn sideways, to pull back toward Mr. Morton, toward safety. Brauer laughed, though, and he forced me hard against his chest, tugging at my hair with enough force to rattle my jaws.
Brauer growled deep in his throat, sounds that might have been lost syllables, twisted words. “Strangle her,” I thought he said. I stared into his face. I could see his red-rimmed eyes, flaming like molten lava. I could see his cracked lips curl back in a snarl. I could see his incisors glinting like a Rottweiler’s, descending even as I gaped.
I screamed as those teeth sank into my neck.
“Fire!” I shrieked. “Call 911!”
I’d taken a self-defense class in college. Some well-padded instructor had brainwashed me that onlookers were more likely to respond to warnings about fire than to everyday cries for help. The same burly guy had promised that twenty-five percent of attackers would be startled away by any loud shout.
Just my luck, Ernst Brauer wasn’t in the twenty-five percent.
Panic flooded my body; my heart clenched with enough force that my entire chest hurt. Barely able to remember my training, I scrabbled for Brauer’s fingers, bending them back until they broke like matchsticks.
In theory. There was no way that I was actually getting Brauer’s hands to move. His fingers might as well have been made of iron.
He snarled against my throat. I actually felt his lips curve back. Hot air rushed against my skin as an inhuman sound rattled out of him. The tiny hairs on my arms rose in primitive reaction — the creature who held me was a predator, and I was prey.
My stomach lurched as I heard the pop of his teeth puncturing my flesh. For one heartbeat, I knew that I was injured, knew that I was going to bleed, and then I gasped at the actual sting of the wound, like a hundred razor nicks all at once. My blood pumped out of my body, suctioned into his mouth. His tongue drove against the pulse point in the hollow beneath my jaw, urging the flow to quicken.
Frantic, I struggled to remember other self-defense techniques. I couldn’t balance in my idiotic new-job pumps; there was no way to get enough leverage to stomp on his insole, to bring my knee up into his groin. That left my hands. Not my own vulnerable fingers, my knuckles that had never delivered a real punch in my life. Instead, I bent my right hand back at my wrist, exposing the hard heel and driving toward my attacker’s solar plexus. I tried to push through his body, to force every last gasp of air from his lungs so that he had no choice but to drop me while he caught his breath.
Great idea. If, you know, the guy actually needed to breathe.
If I had any doubt left about the creature that was attacking me, any suspicion that he was actually human, that I’d made some fanciful mistake by thinking he was a vampire, his reaction to my punch destroyed it. Any human man would have gulped in air after my blow. Any human man would have loosened his grip, if only for a second.
This creature only pulled me closer. He bent my neck at a steeper angle, slicing deeper with one razor fang to follow the rich lode of my jugular. I screamed as my blood began to flow faster.
Another cry matched mine. A bellow, actually. Suddenly, Eleanor was beside us, and Brauer’s fangs ripped from my neck, tearing more of my flesh as he threw back his head to howl. Taking full advantage of my unexpected freedom, I staggered toward the oaken courtroom doors, toward safety.
I wanted to look away. I wanted not to see the creature before me, not to see his pointed teeth glinting with my blood. But I could not stop watching. I could not even blink as Eleanor wrestled Brauer to the ground, twisting her silver chain around his forehead, dropping it to his neck. She pulled the links tight, snapping them against each other with a vehemence that would have caused anyone — human or vampire — to wince.
The silver, though, made Brauer do more than wince. Once again, he screamed — this time in utter agony. I was almost bowled over by the stench of burning flesh. My attacker fell to his knees, slamming against the marble floor with enough force that my own legs ached. The motion knocked him silent, and I realized that he must have passed out. My suspicion was confirmed when he slumped to one side, collapsing in a heap at the toes of Eleanor’s uniform boots.
In the sudden silence, the only sound that I could hear was my pounding heart. I raised a hand to my throat, catching my breath between my teeth as my torn flesh stung, as I realized just how much damage Brauer had done. I was terrified to move my fingers, too afraid to speak, to do anything that might make my wounds even worse.
My ears were ringing, and I realized that Judge DuBois had finally stopped pounding his gavel. I looked up at him, begging him to do something. And that was the first time I discovered that every single creature in the room was staring at me.
No, not at me. At my neck. At my fingers, covered with blood. At my blouse, soaked with the stuff.
Eleanor loomed over Brauer, the silver chain taut in her muscled hands. Her struggle with the witness had smeared her eyeshadow; a long purple streak disappeared into her hairline, making her look like a crazed clown. The court reporter, a skinny little guy, was peering out from behind his toppled stenography machine.
Judge DuBois was on his feet, his raptor eyes pinned to my fingers, as if he were taking an X-ray of my neck. Even the attorneys — the blond defense counsel and the disheveled prosecutor — were staring at me. My skin crawled as a high-pitched whine came from the defendant’s throat. Karl Schmidt was studying me as if I were a Thanksgiving turkey, and he was a man who had been denied food for days. Weeks. A year, at least.
“James,” Judge DuBois said. “Now.”
I whirled back to the one person who wasn’t in my line of sight. Mr. Morton stood directly behind me, close enough that I let out a bark of surprise. He reached toward me, but I lurched backward, even though the motion took me closer to Brauer, closer to all of the others. I couldn’t let him touch me, couldn’t let him put his frozen flesh on mine. My retreat made my heart pound even faster, and I started to panic when I felt more liquid seep between my fingers.
“Sarah,” Mr. Morton snapped, and his left hand shot out, closing around my wrist before I could protest. He pulled me toward the oak doors, toward the hallway and supposed safety. He had to be crazy, though. I wasn’t going anywhere with him. I wasn’t going anywhere with any of these ravenous creatures, any of these monsters who were staring at me like I was some three-course gourmet meal, laid out on a spotless white tablecloth.
I jerked my hand away from Mr. Morton’s.
Or, rather, I tried to jerk my hand away. He must have sensed the motion before I’d even thought to act; his fingers tightened around my wrist like a vise. “Let me go!” I shrieked.
“Sarah.” He might have been instructing me on proper alphabetic order for filing, for all the emotion in his tone.
“Leave me alone!” I fought to free myself, and my right foot slipped on the marble floor.
Even as I struggled to regain my balance, Karl Schmidt lunged toward me, screaming, “Feeder bitch!”
The woman in the plum suit was faster than she looked. Stronger, too. She caught her client in a cross-body hold and refused to let him go. I didn’t have a chance to feel grateful, though. She bared her own incisors, hissing at me like an angry cat.
“Sarah,” Mr. Morton said again, implacably calm. “Come with me. Now.”
What choice did I really have?
Better to follow Mr. Morton out of the room, away from the group of vampires. Better to deal with one, than with half a dozen. Even though every shred of logic said I shouldn’t, I let Mr. Morton lead the way to the locked courtroom doors. I couldn’t help but walk sideways, though, trying to keep an eye on both the ravenous creatures behind me and the man — strike that — the vampire who was my boss.
Apparently, my concern wasn’t absurd. When we reached the double doors, Mr. Morton manhandled me to stand in front of him. He shielded me with his body, hiding me from the others. Someone back there whined, like a dog waiting for kibble. It took forever for Mr. Morton to work the deadbolt. I gasped in frustration, and I saw his head twitch; he was clearly drawn to the blood that leaked between my fingers when I moved. As soon as the lock was sprung, I leaned into the panic bar, letting the weight of my body move the door.
Mr. Morton shifted his grip to my forearm before I could escape down the empty hallway. “Don’t even think about it,” he said. “You need help.”
“I’ll call a doctor.”
“And tell him what?”
I couldn’t believe it. There was actually a hint of a smile on his lips, the barest turn at the hard corners of his mouth. He wasn’t amused enough, though, to let me go. Instead, he used his free hand to reach into his trousers pocket, to extract a keyring and relock the courtroom door. Ever the professional. No one was going to stumble on the Night Court by mistake. Not on Mr. Morton’s watch.
He took all of three steps, quick-marching me down the hall, before I lost my balance. I really was trying to move my feet, but my toes forgot to come along. I recovered from that first stumble, but my next step made my head swim. Apparently unaware of my confusion, Mr. Morton tugged at my arm, muttering under his breath as his fingers slipped down to my crimson-slicked hematite bracelet. His motion was enough to upset my balance completely. My knees buckled, and darkness swooped in like Poe’s intractable raven.
“God damn it!” I heard Mr. Morton say, and a tiny part of my brain was surprised to hear him swear. He was too proper to swear. Too reserved.
But there was nothing proper about the way he lifted me off my feet. Nothing proper about the way he cursed at me when I started to protest. Nothing proper about the way he barged into his office, about the way he dropped me onto the black leather couch that hulked against the wall.
Leather. I shouldn’t bleed all over leather.
Still dazed, I realized that my fingers had slipped off my neck, that my blood was flowing freely now. I fought to regain my grip, but my hand was tingling; I couldn’t figure out where my skin ended and the electric air in the room began.
I closed my eyes, the better to concentrate on such a strange sensation. It wasn’t just my fingers. My toes had dissolved as well. I wiggled them, trying to figure out where they’d gone. I used to have shoes, brand new shoes. But they were gone. Everything was gone now. I was just floating, a drifting swirl of thought….
“Sarah,” someone said from very far away. I didn’t want to listen. I just wanted to follow the irregular drumbeat that tickled the back of my brain, the thumping sound that was fading away, so soft now that I could barely make it out against my syncopated breathing.
“Sarah!” That voice was more insistent, more demanding. Still, there was no reason to respond. Not when I could just fall back into the darkness forever. Not … when … I … could…
I forgot my words and drifted away into the nothingness.
But then, there was something — a sharp smell, hot, like a penny roasting in the sun, sparking beneath my nose. I had a nose. And I had a mouth, as well. A mouth, with lips and tongue and teeth. My teeth were pressed against something, something soft and yielding. My tongue darted out, and I tasted … not copper. Not exactly. This was salty and hot, like chicken soup in the middle of a blizzard.
Strike that. Not soup.
This was velvety and pure, hot and delicious. I swallowed, once, twice, a third time. Heat spread through my body. I was drinking, but it felt as if I were inhaling some distilled essence of power. A vibrating energy filled my chest; it expanded inside me, doubling, and doubling again. It pumped through my arms to my hands, to the very tips of my fingers. It echoed inside my legs, past my knees, through my ankles and into my feet.
My flesh ignited with the sweetness of the drink, the sweetness and the saltiness and the pure, tawny wholeness of it. I could feel the rough ridges where my pantyhose had run as I stumbled through the hallway — when was it? A lifetime ago? I could feel a hangnail on my right thumb, sense it tingle before it closed itself up, before it disappeared.
And I could feel the mangled mess beneath my jaw. My torn vein was weaving itself together, knitting itself back to health. The flow of blood was restored beneath my skin, and the smooth stretch of my neck was new again.
With the healing came full awareness. Full comprehension. I knew that I was on a leather sofa. That I was cradled against a body. Arms were wrapped around me, holding me close, spoon fashion. My face was pressed against one of those arms, against a smooth, muscular wrist. My lips were suckling at the edges of a wound.
I was drinking Mr. Morton’s blood.
I pulled back, horrified. My motion, though, only moved me closer to his chest, closer to the body that sheltered me, that protected me. Closer to the vampire who was my boss. “Let me go!” I demanded, but I was still too dazed to put actions to words, to actually push myself away from him.
“In a moment,” he said, and his words reverberated along the length of my spine.
I should have been petrified. I should have fought for freedom, given my life to escape to the human world, to the sane world, to the normalcy that waited somewhere outside this office. But the energy inside me — the alien blood inside me — soothed me, calmed me as if it were a drug. I sank back, dazed by the sensation that all was right, that I was safe.
I licked my lips, and I realized that the blood carried information. I knew things that I’d only imagined an hour before. A lifetime before. I understood vampires — who they were, what they did, how they lived, year after year after year, forever, unless they were killed.
Vulnerable to silver: check, as I’d already witnessed back in the courtroom.
Destroyed by sunlight: check, if “destroyed” meant increasingly severe burns tied to the length of exposure, culminating in brutal, cindery death.
Killed by stake: check, but only with a direct blow to the heart, with a weapon made of oak.
Teleporting, mind-reading, turning into a mist: nope, nothing that cinematic.
Garlic, crosses, and other pathetic human folk remedies to protect against fangs: forget about it.
Vampires didn’t need to sleep in coffins, and they didn’t salvage earth from some distant homeland. They did require an explicit invitation before they could cross the threshold of a home. And somehow, creepiest of all, they had no reflection — not in a mirror.
All of that was crystal clear inside my head. All of that, and one more fact: vampire blood healed humans. Healed humans completely, from whatever physical harm we suffered, from whatever illnesses our weak, flawed bodies harbored.
Vampire blood had brought me back from the very brink of death.
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